‘Watchdogs protect river’

by Jonathan Chin of the Town Journal
  Upper Saddle River

Frustrated and angered by the pollution of their river, residents are training to become environmental "watchdogs."

The nearby village of Airmont and Rockland County Sewer District No. 1 have failed to address their overtaxed sewer system, which has sent raw sewage into the Saddle River on many occasions, according to residents.

In response, about a dozen citizens have trained to oversee different sections of the Saddle River throughout the year. They’ll start monitoring the river in October, with another 20 volunteers expected to train in the future.

"Right on our border, we have a source of pollution, constant pollution," said one volunteer, Karen Miller. "As residents, we feel we have to take it into our own hands to monitor the health of our river."

"The thing about the river—if you ruin it forever, there’s no going back," she added. "It’s our precious resource in town and we really, as residents, have to take care of it. We’re all caretakers of this river."

"I care about the environment, I care about the river," said Council Member Dennis Schubert. "I’ve lived here all my life. I can remember fishing in that river as a kid and taking out trout."

Miller and Schubert were particularly alarmed about a sewer spill that took place off of Cherry Lane in Airmont this past August.

Residents suspect that the incident sent 2 to 14 million gallons of sewage into Lake Oratam and subsequently the Saddle River.

"It was actually spouting from the manhole," said Miller. "Spouting like feet above the manhole. Obviously, it’s just disgusting."

"Children play in that river all the time—all the time," she said. "Lake Oratam, where it emptied into, I know that there are neighbors who kayak on that lake and who use that lake for recreation."

"With everything that’s been in the news about E.coli, I mean, it’s very serious," she said. "E.coli is very serious and obviously comes from raw sewage."

Residents said although the overflow off of Cherry Lane was first discovered on a Friday afternoon, it took until Monday morning for Rockland County Sewer District No. 1 workers to put a stop to it."

"Spills happen, I know that," said Miller. "But the fact that nobody responded, that that geyser was allowed to spout from Friday to Monday, is unconscionable."

"They’ve lost all credibility now, all credibility in my mind," said Schubert. "That organization cannot be trusted to run a sewer authority, in my humble opinion. it infuriates me."

Miller contended that Rockland County officials have not done enough. "It doesn’t seem that there’s any urgency about this ever, that nobody seems to be upset except for the residents," she said.

Applications for two schools in the county—which could bring additional people and further overburden the sewer system—have raised even more concerns.

Residents have taken it upon themselves to start monitoring the condition of the river, taking training this past summer with Passaic Valley Sewer Commission.

Miller explained that they plan on monitoring the river at least four times a year. They will also test the river after they become aware of spills.

"We’ve divided the river up into segments. . . we will biologically and visually and chemically test the river," said Miller.

Schubert said, "We’re basically going to judge the quality of the river by the clarity of the river and then what’s growing in the river, and what aquatic life is living in the river."

"I think it gives us a baseline of where the river is today and then we can assess if it gets worse, if it gets better," he added.

"My hope is that somebody, some environmental department will hear about this and be as concerned as residents and eventually take action," said Miller.

Jonathan Chin’s email is chin@northjersey.com.